Kimo Balthazer was parked outside a McDonald’s in Stockton, reading the press release on his laptop. The gift of free wireless from McDonald’s was much appreciated, as was the tremendous improvement of late in their coffee. If you didn’t have an office and didn’t speak Starbucks, which Balthazer didn’t, McDonald’s had really come around these past few years, especially if you stayed away from the children’s climbing equipment, a survival strategy.
The press release was now almost a day old, though not quite, this fine Tuesday morning after its distribution the day before. Balthazer looked at the hot stock listings on his home page and noted the stock of EnvisionInk was trading up 17%, an increase from the previous day’s decline of 6%. Balthazer wasn’t much of an active stock trader, but common sense told him that if the founders and co-CEOs of a company had been kidnapped, their stock price might be expected to remain in a nosedive. Perhaps the company was getting credit for “refusing to negotiate with terrorists” as the government was fond of lying about, but that would hardly seem solace for investors in a company so closely tied to the personae of Choy and Finkelman, names known to Balthazer through front page headlines, financial as well as news and lifestyle. More likely it was optimism and expectation of a premium anticipated in an acquisition of EnvisionInk by Atom Heart, although that seemed strangest of all, to confirm a rumor of a potential corporate merger but provide no more details, not even identify formal discussions. Yes, to Balthazer that did seem strange, an almost deliberate attempt to put some good news out there with the bad, presuming you thought a merger of EnvisionInk, a tech giant built on a single albeit windfall premise, and Atom Heart Entertainment, a fully diversified old world media giant with big profits but little digital DNA, was in fact a good idea. They were both lumbering assemblies of fat cells, both once inspirationally great, both still mammoth cash cows. Two generations center stage at the dance, one old school and one new school, one with its acerbic but enormously successful CEO still at his desk, possibly contemplating merciful retirement, the other with two celebrated but long-term unproven thought leaders swept away in captivity. Maybe Sol would run the NewCo for a while, maybe the adolescents would be released tomorrow and they’d prove their true genius running it. Maybe it was a good deal, maybe as moronic as AOL Time Warner. Honestly, Balthazer had no clue. The only thing that mattered to him was he now had a killer topic for his Internet debut.
In the last 24 hours, Balthazer had suddenly become focused on rebirthing his career, with a determined if unproven path now fixed in his mind. Turning to pure-play Internet radio as a creative outlet was no doubt an act of desperation, but he had learned repeatedly that self-delusion was often the key to longevity in the media spotlight. Anyone with a brain would tell you the idea of becoming Internet radio’s first breakout star was so outlandish you would have to be staring down the hangman’s noose to bet what was left of your name on it. The level to which this was absurd did not escape Balthazer, not long ago a much-sought and highly followed radio talk show celebrity syndicated coast to coast and on U.S. military bases around the world. His signal had for many years been streamed online, but the aggregate of all those streams on any given day didn’t even add up to a small redevelopment zone on the outer edges of Fresno. In any given week, all the streams and podcasts together did not goose ad rates even a penny. It was just nothing, nothing at all worth mentioning even at a buffet happy hour. Original programming for Internet radio had no traction, no commercial scale, there was no apparent reason for it. Stations and branded channels were nihilist remnants of another age, fragmented beyond recognition, remaindered bits of forgotten noise for baby boomers. Listeners today no longer thought in terms of channels or themes. They thought in terms of personalization and I-want-what-I-want, assemblies of Pandora predictions and Spotify collectives, not return destinations. Hyper-niche was an amateur hidden URL spitting out pennies, and hyper-local was a fire pit for small-fry cash. The brand was the listener, self-absorption that trumped opinion. Internet radio signals were repurposed air fillers, intended for surviving station managers who wanted to tell their bosses they “got it” when it came to digital destruction. Internet radio tuned to retransmission was beyond geeky; there was almost no one listening, and no one at all who mattered to the ad mob, which was all the more disheartening. If anyone alive still cared about old-fashioned talk radio, they would listen the old fashioned way, in their car, directing that thing with knobs in the dashboard. The rest of the mobile world could care less. Digital distribution qua Internet radio should have held all the potential in the world, but to date it reflected no measurable audience share worth quoting.
Balthazer was determined to change that. This was his answer to, “Where do you go after Fresno?” It was simultaneously an act of need, fantasy, speculation, and prayer. If there was an audience to be had, he was going to find it now or disappear forever. His email list of a half million was a good enough place to start. Last night at the roadside motel, which he picked from a crumbling sign for its generous free Wi-Fi and acceptance of cash without questions, he had blasted an announcement to his loyals that today was his launch. No anxiety, no apprehension, he thought it up and did it. Now, live from this McDonald’s parking lot in Stockton, which also kindly offered free Wi-Fi, he was going to give it the first test. His laptop drew power from the cigarette lighter dock of his Infinity-turned-studio. He had enough bars on the connect gauge to move voice upstream and down. His Bluetooth headset and mic were comfortably fitted around his skull. The basic version of Skype was free. He tilted back his leather seat and took a deep breath. Redemption hour was on deck. This is Rage – real, unadulterated, pure, Internet exclusive, going on the air, and his day one rant was ready.
The signs were good. The Chat Text box had been populated since dawn. Feedback was flowing without pause, great comments from the many loyals who had received the email and found him:
“Kimo, can’t live without you. Mega glad you’re back.”
“Internet radio is a loser, Balthazer. You’re a loser. But you’re our loser. Count me in.”
“My boss was a prick when you were in New York, L.A., and Fresno. She’s still a prick. I need you, Kimo. Help me from doing something I’ll regret.”
“There is only one Kimo Balthazer. One mouth in a billion.”
The comments kept scrolling. It gave him pause, a hell of a pick-up from his first discovery of just three in the box. When he went to sleep the night before, he thought if he got a hundred today, he would call it a walk-off win. If he got a thousand, he’d call it the pennant. He looked at the ticker widget on his home page – more than 5,000 people had checked in! Five thousand Internet listeners, a 1% response rate from his half million emailing! In Fresno an audience of 5,000 would have you sweeping floors at the Slovakian broadcast cooperative. For Balthazer, these 5,000 were a new world, the chance at a comeback. He was ready to go, voice to voice, as long as McD’s bandwidth held up. His listeners would hear him and he would hear them. Just minutes to broadcast and This is Rage would be back on the air. There were risks, so many risks. Could he get a decent caller without a screener, or would he have to take whatever would come? Would this first show be enough to go viral? How far did he need to go to get listeners to push the forward button on their emails? Could he keep his promise and not hurt anyone this time, but still be entertaining? Could he balance the edge with a sample of so few?
It would all come down to today’s subject matter, his first run at this vacuous new world. He needed a hype story, momentum that couldn’t melt. That EnvisionInk press release was packed with lies, pure brain pollution, a gift of masked pain forged by the company’s counterintelligence propagandists. Their sins were his on-ramp, no judgment, a business proposition inviting entry. Thank god, thank god for EnvisionInk – those joyously corrupt, awful, scumbag, horror freak show criminals running EnvisionInk.
The self-imposed air time moment had arrived, Balthazer’s last stand.
On The Air.
KIMO: Welcome, This is Rage. I am back, your host, Kimo Balthazer, 100% commercial free, you have my promise on that. Live on Internet-only radio from… I can’t tell you that. Too many ticked-off people looking for me, and I don’t see a reason to tip them off. I’ll be on the move for a while, but when I am on the air, I’m all yours. So let’s get angry. Let’s talk about things that matter. I need your important calls more than I’ve ever needed them before, because this show is about us. It’s our show. We need to prove that. What’s going on in your company that hurts you? How is your greedy, soulless employer bringing you down? There’s a bit of news on this in the headlines – seems everyone’s favorite lovable, huggable, digital teddy bear, EnvisionInk, has a mighty mess on its hands. Have you seen any of this soap opera? Their superstar billionaire CEOs – they have two of them, you know; when you’re minting that much coin, why compensate one gazillionaire when you can double the cost and have co-CEOS – well, it seems they were kidnapped over the weekend. You can’t make this stuff up, gang. This is the stuff of legends and it is real, real, real. According to news reports, Mr. Calvin Choy and Mr. Stephen J. Finkelman were whisked away from a party at the home of their board chairman, Mr. Daniel Steyer, who might be the wealthiest man in California. Steyer is what’s known as a venture capitalist, a mega-high-risk, super-self-important investment addict. What he does is collect mountains of money from other rich people, kind of like a loan to buy whatever he wants after he takes out a 2% annual fee, and then he bets it on rising stars like Choy and Finkelman. If it’s a good bet, he gets to keep 20% of the winnings and the rest goes back to the rich people so they get, you know, richer. If they burn it all up in an oil drum, well then, it’s a tax write-off, not many tears shed. Now in this particular case, unless you have been counting your savings on an abacus, you probably know the bet paid off, Lotto style! EnvisionInk Systems is one of the most successful technology companies ever, and I wish I could tell you what they do, but as clearly as I understand it, they tell companies like Macy’s and Amazon when not to buy advertising on sites like Google and for that they have been tremendously rewarded. I don’t much get it, but then, I don’t get Google either, so let’s just say Yin found a Yang and the legal money keeps on coming. So now the co-CEOs of EnvisionInk are holed up somewhere; they can’t tell us of course or they’d be swimmin’ with the fishes, but what we do know from an EnvisionInk press release is that whoever took Choy and Finkelman must have requested a super oozing vat of moolah, because all the press release says is they aren’t serving up a cent. I’m reasonably sure that’s not going to be pleasantly received by the mean old monsters who took Choy and Finkelman, whoever they are, so pretty soon we’re all going to find out what the hell is going on here. Okay, here’s my question for the, wow, 16,572 of you who are now checked in and listening to me – and thank you for that; you have no idea what that means to me – but what I want to know is, if you were on the EnvisionInk board of directors, would it make good sense for you to shell out some dough to get back your top dogs with all their limbs still finely tuned, or would you trust our government – which has such an amazing track record on these sorts of showdowns – to get your founders home safely?
In those very few moments, Balthazer had recouped his groove. He might as well have been talking to himself. For all he knew, he was talking to himself, save for that ticker widget on his monitor that kept ticking up like an energy meter in summer. It was fluid now, the numbers were turning steadily. Somehow, people were finding him. Perhaps he had been wrong about Malcolm Gladwell. Maybe The Tipping Point wasn’t a pointless expression of the obvious masquerading as a book. What was also quite real was the sound of his voice. Outside the Infiniti M in the McDonald’s parking lot, you could almost feel the bass notes booming through the windows. Balthazer did not even notice that civilians, kindly families with lively young children, were pulling into the lot all around him on Big Mac retrieval missions and couldn’t help but notice the funny looking fat man with the headgear bantering away at full volume. Of course the French-fry-adoring passersby likely assumed he was just on a mobile call, but mobile calls had beginnings and endings and weren’t usually accompanied by wildly waving hand gestures and drama queen bits of steam forming on the inside of the rolled-up auto windows. If you didn’t know better, and no one had reason to know better, you might think there was a mad man raving uncontrollably in his luxury car, either talking to himself or freaking out whoever might be on the other end of the line. In some senses, you’d be right, and you might even bring it to the attention of the McDonald’s dimple-cheeked manager inside. Host Balthazer was oblivious, he was fully alive and again in his glory. This was plainclothes therapy, now with 29,419 therapists on his virtual frequency. Or were they the patients and he the head shrink? It didn’t matter, he was rolling.
KIMO: Well, it seems we have a nice list of willing participants teed up in the bullpen and ready to play today. I see your “screen names” on the Skype grid and if I click on you then you will be on the air with me. Warms my heart so many of you are here, but to be clear, a few ground rules – this is uber low budget, I don’t have a screener anymore, so I’m going to be guessing when I bring you live. If you are dull or pointless, I’ll have to dump you with even less patience than usual. So be angry, but be interesting. Otherwise you’re gone. Dracula XY – now there’s a handle – Dracula XY from Benton Harbor, Michigan, Welcome, This is Rage!
CALLER DRACULA XY: Dude, you’re back. And I’m caller number one, how cool is that?
KIMO: Depends on how attention-grabbing you are, Drac. Try me on.
CALLER DRACULA XY: So, like, I don’t know much about all these rich guys in San Francisco and that technology of the future stuff, whatever they call it, the vision thing. I just work in a tire shop, you know, like, fixing tires. But I’m like wondering, like, maybe they kidnapped the guys themselves, like, they didn’t like the CEOs, so they got rid of them. ’Cause I’ve thought about doing that myself, you know, because our CEO is such a douche bag. He tells us we’ve gotta tighten our belts, but all he does is keep taking all our money. So if I could, I would definitely have him kidnapped, wherever he lives, you know? He needs to suffer.
KIMO: Swing and a miss, Drac. Already got a story about kidnappers, don’t need another. Stay away from the sun light; you’ll stay out of jail longer without human exposure.
Not at all what Balthazer was looking for, he dropped the call. This was undoubtedly going to be harder than he imagined. Inside the McDonald’s, he was starting to draw more attention. Kids were watching him through the windows, their breathing fog on the glass panels starting to rival his in the car. The playground was becoming an unsupervised observation deck, children hanging backwards with their legs wrapped around the climbing bars, eyes fixed on the Infiniti and its very stranger driver.
Balthazer looked at his screen, and to his delight the ticker widget crossed 37,000. He was ready to go again, mouse click on.